Thursday, April 27, 2006

Kathryn vs. Lyon, Round Two: Chapter 18

Chapter 18: Spring has Sprung

Faith and begora, the sun has come out. The laundry dries in three hours, neighbours smile at one another, the tomatoes and melons are deliciously in season and once I even got a little bit of a farmer's tan.

Franck is learning for the first time what it means to wake up to spring; after years in a place where it's sunny all year long, this is the first time he's actively appreciated the difference a little warmth can make. The Gwada sun is also exhausting and aggressive and you generally try to stay out of it; our April sun in Lyon is warm and loving and invites you to bring a chair outside and bask in its glory. Franck didn't know that this kind of sun exists and can't believe his luck as he walks around outside with outstretched arms and his scalp not burning. He also can't believe how late the sun sets: in Guadeloupe it's between 6:00 and 6:30 every evening, all year long, whereas with the daylight savings jump it's setting at 8:30 here and Franck is freaked out. "We can't eat dinner, it's still day out!" So we eat late and have indigestion throughout the night -- vive le printemps!

The high temperatures seem to have settled in for good now, but it was touch and go for a while: after a couple of 26-degree afternoons, I would dress confidently in skirt and sandals, prepared to greet the sun. The freezing rain would start on my way to the subway and by the time I read the temperature board at the station -- six degrees celsius -- my bare arms would be aching with cold. So I would drag myself home eight hours later, teeth chattering and fingers blue, make soup and wrap myself up in a sleeping bag on the couch. The next day, having learned from my mistakes, I would wear a turtleneck sweater, jeans, a poncho and socks with my shoes, and I'd be sweating in the 25-degree sunshine by 10:00 a.m. while my students said things like "madame, aren't you hot?" and all I could do was squint my eyes at them in distaste.

That's all over now, and all that remains is to tackle the real problem of good weather, which I like to think is shared by many people, with obvious exceptions such as Salma Hayek and the like. You all know how it goes: you've spent months and months covering your skin to protect it from the cold and the harsh winds. You've worn jeans and track pants, sweaters and flannels, winter coats, ponchos, boots and wool socks. You've mostly forgotten what your body looks like, and in the glory of a first warm day, you throw caution to the wind, whip out your favourite wrap-around skirt and tank-top and run out to feel the sun on your skin -- which is when you realize that said skin is white, white, ghastly white -- almost night-bus neon blue -- and flabby. The sun highlights your pasty, sickly flesh and your every flaw without pity until you break down and curse the heavens: Why did I ever leave Guadeloupe? I abandoned tanned, toned and blond to come back to pale and flabby!

Bronwyn once theorized that you don't actually look better at the end of the summer, you're just used to yourself by then -- but seeing pictures of my smiling summer self makes it painfully clear that the sun IS all it's cracked up to be and Kathryn-in-April simply is not at her best. And so, here begins the season of either slowly looking better or just getting used to myself, and I wish myself luck during these bumpy weeks.

The English teachers at one of my schools had a dinner that may or may not have been in my honour. Nathalie invited Franck and me to meet her family, and then all the other teachers were on board and suddenly they were buying me a gift and saying what a jolly good fellow I am. (I noticed they didn't say anything about what a jolly good teacher I am; you can't win 'em all...) None of the other men came, either, which makes me wonder if I had misunderstood the invitation. It was a good thing that Franck had a music gig and couldn't come, or he would have spent the evening among a bunch of women talking about students and super-intendants and ski-trip staff scandals, which, it is safe to say, just isn't his bag.

I spent the afternoon with Nathalie's family, in particular her seven-year-old daughter, Mathilde, who decided I was amazing and hooked onto me like a desperate woman. She showed me her dolls, her clothes, her photo albums, her swing set, the cut on her finger that refuses to heal. (She slammed it in a car door and a month later it's still the size of a cocktail wiener, which is huge next to her tiny seven-year-old fingers and also very gross.) She showed me her turtles, her sisters' rooms, the shower that the girls refuse to use because it is infested with spiders. She admired my braids and my shirt and said I looked like her favourite cartoon character, Sparkle. (I saw her; I don't.) It was the best. It was fun being considered exciting again, afer so long in Lyon where people collectively could not care less about my existence, other than as a degree of connection with either Quebec or Los Angeles, depending on their age bracket.

Mathilde's affection lost some of its charm when I stupidly told her that I, too, prefer short-distance sprinting to long-distance, marathon-type running; she got out her specialty stop watch and was only too pleased to alternate between racing me herself and timing my [frankly unimpressive] sprints, unmoved by the difficulty I faced in running around a sloped backyard in a skirt that holds my knees together. It was like jogging in a kimono and let it be said that it wasn't pretty. After twenty-five minutes of racing, I was saved by a request to play piano duets with the eldest of the three daughters, almost fun but for the unnerving and unwavering gaze of Mathilde, standing behind the piano bench with her face about four inches from the side of my neck. She didn't take her eyes off me the whole time.

She picked flowers for me from the garden, gave me her favourite sparkly bracelet and a little white rock which she claims looks like a polar bear (but which actually looks like a little white rock), drew me two pictures and then put the picture I drew above her bed, covering the poster of her beloved Arthur (the turtle). It was intense. She cried when I left and sent me two more pictures and some very tasty Easter eggs -- god bless the child -- with her mom on Thursday. One of the pictures had the two of us holding hands, surrounded by the bunnies I taught her to draw, the sky filled with hearts. I guess I'm her first crush and I wish her luck to deal with the let-down a first crush inevitably brings.

The dinner itself was okay, pretty low-key -- nowhere near as much fun as hanging out with Mathilde, but I was expected to participate in the grown-ups' conversation and could only play pick-up sticks on the floor for so long -- and featured bacon-wrapped prunes. Have you tried these before? They're fantastic. I ate no fewer than fifteen of the little squishy treats, which may account for the gastro-intestinal crisis I experienced that night.

The ladies offered me a linen scarf, typical French fashion to remind me of my year here. It's a very pretty blue and everyone said it was a good colour for me, but what am I going to do with a French scarf? This is a look that you either can pull of or you can't. I most definitely can't -- it's highly un-slimming, as it were -- and when I wore it for some of the evening I felt suffocated and hostile. As I have to wear it to school at least once to show my appreciation, I've been experimenting with possible looks, the only successful one being an exciting turban style which is not school appropriate and thus not in the running. Maybe I could borrow Stephanie's baby and sling her up in it as a carrier, though there's something fishy about using a one-year-old as a fashion accessory. Tricky.

A lot of you ask about Franck, who is doing lots of music, particularly with an African reggae group that's just as disorganized and loopy as the ones he played with in Guadeloupe, god help us all. As for work, let me tell you about "getting a job in France." There's a government employment agency called the A.N.P.E. and you have to go through them if you want financial help while you're out of work, which everyone obviously does. Franck can't work for more than three months at a time if he's to get financial aid for school next year, so he has to keep his name on their list by signing in every two weeks and they, in turn, are supposed to find him short contracts, presumably in his field (horticulture or sales), as they make such a fuss out of creating an information file on each job-seeker. Here's how it works:

Every two weeks, after two or three hours in the waiting room (I've gone with him and I am not exaggerating), he speaks with someone behind the counter to confirm that he's still here and looking for work. The person then gives him information on a bunch of available jobs and Franck calls them; several are invariably non-existant numbers and the others say that they informed the A.N.P.E. weeks ago that the position had been filled. Twice they sent him to the wrong address and in February he showed up at the grocery store where he'd been officially hired and they'd gone out of business. He can't stop going to them or he'll lose his chance to go to school, so no matter how much they dick him around, he has to keep showing up and waiting for hours in the empty hope that they'll actually do their job.

The latest adventure was for a job stacking bottles in a supermarket, a three-month replacement contract. The only qualification was to be in good shape, which Franck is, and so he got up Monday morning, spruced himself up, packed a lunch and headed to the store for 7:30 a.m., as the A.N.P.E. had told him to do. When the manager showed up and opened at 8:30, he told Franck that the job started in two weeks. "Wow, you're right," said the A.N.P.E. after Franck had waited the two hours to see someone. "I guess you'll have to go back in two weeks." This last Monday, then, off he went at 8:30: "Right," said the manager, "so did you do the training?"

It's not actually that surprising that he should need to take a course and receive a diploma in bottle-stacking for a three-month job; this is France, don't forget, and you can't do anything -- from picking up garbage in the park to stacking bottles, apparently -- without having done "une formation." No, the problem is that the A.N.P.E. didn't bother to give Franck the information package that goes with the job so that he might actually DO the training required, and now he doesn't get the job, despite having assistant-managed a grocery store for two years.

Obviously, this is crappy for us because it's hours and hours of wasted time, which is frustrating and bad for the morale, and less money in the household. More importantly, though, what kind of system is this? People have no choice but to go through the A.N.P.E. and then it plays around with them so they feel like shit and it doesn't ever deliver so they don't find work, they continue to live off of government aid and everyone complains that taxes are too high. Not that there's any incentive for the A.N.P.E. workers to do their job well, since they're in for life unless they set the building on fire or kill someone. You can't fire people in France, remember. Why shouldn't some jerk sit in his cushy job, come back from his two-hour lunch break, not give Franck an information package and then shrug and say "oops" when he asks for an explanation? What difference does it make to him? But that's dirty capitalist talk and I should know better than to think that people should actually earn their money. Down with the CPE! Villepin sucks!

So they sent him on the trail of some horticulture-related jobs which we're vaguely hoping will pan out, but we aren't getting our hopes up. He'll probably have to do a training stint on water jug-filling, since they undoubtedly use different equipment here than in Guadeloupe and his diploma and years of work experience simply aren't compatible with the specialized "formation" offered by the Lyon's A.N.P.E. (And paid for by them as well, thus adding to Useless Government Expenses and further raising taxes -- opa!) We're thinking it's time for him to start selling drugs; he seems to look the part, as he's constantly approached by people looking for a quick fix, so getting customers would be rather effortless. He could cut the stuff with Creole spices that would keep them coming back for more and I could hook him up with the junior high crowd. There are glitches to work out, but we're looking into it.

But enough bitterness. Let me share with you some good thoughts from students of mine: the first is a written response to a car ad, in which a grey and depressed-looking man is standing in front of a fancy house, wearing a classy pin-striped suit and holding an electric guitar, presumably pitching the sleek grey car to men experiencing a mid-life crisis. Here's some funny English:

"In my opinion which is an opinion of me, old people who get into this car will be perhaps well but they won't become again (of) young people. And in my personal opinion I don't like this car."

Another student was surprised that the sun rises in the East in Canada, same as France. I used some students to act out the Earth turning around the sun and showed that pretty much anywhere -- maybe not in the Arctic? are you with me? -- the sun will show up in the East. I threw in a little bit of time zone information and the student said "thanks for the lesson; I guess we'll go to bed a little less stupid tonight." Which, all things considered, is all we can really ask for in this life.

Think of me on May 17th, when Barcelona and Arsenal will compete in the final of the League of Champions. This pitches my two favourite players against each other (Ronaldinho and Henry), much as I had feared, and it will be a stressful game indeed. I've loved Thierry Henry for much longer, but I don't like English teams (sorry, I just don't) and would rather see Barcelona come through. And have you seen our Ronny with a soccer ball? He's amazing, a living legend. Tough decisions. It will be the same situation this summer if their national teams, Brazil and France, end up playing against each other, though my having gone off of France should help. I do love that Thierry Henry, but now that I know the dark side of his country, I'm going to have to find a new favourite team and Brazil is looking pretty good from here. Could someone make soccer happen in Canada so that I could root for our own team for once? The whole world is on it -- what's taking us so long?!


ribbit ribbit

Tuesday, April 4, 2006

Kathryn vs. Lyon, Round Two: Chapter 17

Chapter 17: Woozy in the Staff Room

It's just after 8:00 and I'm at school, though my first class on Tuesdays is at 10:00, so I have to kill a couple of hours and I thought it might be a good time for a letter. I'm feeling a bit woozy, as the flavoured pipe tobacco coming in from the smoking room is going to my head (you remember, of course, that there are SMOKING ROOMS in both my junior high schools and that each one is the home of the staff microwave and lockers) but I think he's almost finished his break and will have to actually go teach someone.

Why am I two hours early for class? Simply because I didn't know if there would be a bus and I had to get a ride with a colleague who starts at 8:00. (It was a stressful ride: she recently fell and hurt her back, so in the car she cheerfully told me about the frequent and unpredictable arm paralysis she now experiences, like this one time when she was driving and her arm seized up and she couldn't change gears or steer and almost crashed into the bookstore! Ha! Funny story, Claude! Now let me the hell out of the car!)

And if you have to ask why there might not be a bus, you haven't listened to anything I've said about France since September. (By which I mean September 2001.) A strike, of course, you silly geese. Another angry strike and the demonstrations that go with. That damn CPE, you see, that has everybody in a tizzy about the two-year trial period and the fired-without-reason thing, has just been officially signed in by the president, the bastard. Except that -- hang on a second -- he refused to sign it until it had been adjusted so that the trial period is only one year and any firing action must be justified by the employers. Which is... exactly what the angry protesters were demanding. And they got it. And yet they're still protesting. Hmmm... tricky, the French.

(A quotation to sum it all up from Bernard Thibault, the leader of France's largest union and thus one of the chief people in a position to help find a solution to the problem: "The president remains stuck on that invitation for dialogue that has no chance of success." And so he refuses dialogue. And blames the president. See? What can anyone do with that kind of logic?)

My prediction: Villepin's career will be destroyed, no politician will ever dare try a new strategy again, foreign investors will continue to pull out, unemployment will continue to rise, young people will have even less job security than they have now and the protestors will take to the streets again in five years because they're unemployed and angry. Isn't life hard.

But enough about current events: let's talk some more about me! I was going to tell you about my week-end in Annecy, which came about because my mom is involved with some hardcore [French, white and mostly non-religious] gospel singers and wanted me to play the piano during their five-hour workshop. I took the train out on Friday with my Herald Tribune for company -- you know when you're doing a hard crossword and people look over your shoulder at your lack of success and you feel judged? They saw my three or four desperate (and probably wrong) answers in the course of a two-hour train ride and I wanted to explain that the New York Times crossword is famously difficult, increasingly so during the week, and that if I had taken the train on Monday or Tuesday I would have been on fire, but they obviously didn't care. It was a defensive beginning.

Since everybody in Annecy is particularly nice and welcoming, the workshop looked like it was going to be a good time. Then the stand-in-a-circle warm-ups started and I realized that my personality has fundamentally changed since high school. Have you seen the show "Dead Like Me"? There's an episode in which George refuses to participate in her office getaway week-end and explains that she's just not a joiner, which turns out to be exactly my problem. I don't know at which point in my life I went from being a drama club kid to a complete loner, but it's happened and it's too late to go back.

*For example: the lunchtime cafeteria at my Thursday school is back up and running after a long break for renovations. The teachers who pack a lunch go and sit with the cafeteria diners for company and they always invite me to join them. I can't refuse, so I end up sitting in conversations that have nothing to do with me (except when someone has a sudden thought about Quebec and asks me what the temperature is these days or if they use a certain French expression, and I remind them, as I've been doing since October and as I will do until the day I die -- or leave Lyon, whichever comes first -- that I'm the English assistant because I'm from an English-speaking country, and I probably know less about Quebec traditions than they do) and waiting for someone to get up and leave so that I don't look rude for doing the same. I've taken to hiding out in the bathroom until the halls are empty and no one can trap me with their kind intentions so that I can sit in the empty staffroom and eat my almond croissant in peace.

This gospel workshop started with trust-your-partner exercises, continued through walk-through-the-crowd-of-strangers-while-singing-solo and finished with clapping and singing and doing actions along with the words. It was a joiner's paradise. At one point I was sitting in the pews, watching some of the small-group acts, when a girl came to sit beside me and smiled. And not just any girl: she was practically identical to my dear friend Julie and I had been staring at her, fascinated, all day and wanted to talk to her.

Well, I didn't. I just sat there and she sat there and after a while she got up and went back to the group. Went back and "joined" the group, even. I stayed in the pews while the singing started back up and hummed along with "Children Go Where I Send Thee" quietly to myself -- so what's happened to me? When did I stop being artsy-fartsy and become not only cynical and mean, but paralyzed with anti-social tendencies? I can't put my finger on the exact moment it happened, but I've changed. Now I have to decide whether it's a personality defect I need to overcome, or whether I should just accept that I am no longer a joiner and sit out. And if it's the latter, should I get some cool sunglasses or something? Maybe a motorcycle?

The group met up for dinner that evening in a restaurant called Canadian Corner, which Mom and I tried to interpret as being in our honour but they insisted was just because one of the singers had been there before and liked it. Likely story. The best part about the place was that it was run by a couple of Parisians [the one we talked to had never set foot in Canada] and it had pictures of Marilyn Monroe, Betty Boop, Charlie Chaplin and other famous not-Canadians all over the walls. True, there was a Mountie hat, a picture of John Candy -- in the Jamaican-dominated movie cover from "Cool Runnings" -- and a stuffed caribou head, but they were hidden behind Kangaroo Crossing signs and Marlboro Man ads and were probably just there by
total coincidence. Calling the place "Anglophone Culture Corner," while less catchy, would have been closer to the truth. It had a log cabin feel, though, the walls were covered top to bottom with pictures and stuff was hanging on clotheslines all over the place, so it would have been a familiar setting for your average Canadian diner -- Mom likened it to Jack Astor's -- but didn't we get that look from the American restaurant chains that supplanted our own? It's not like they served fiddleheads, Molson beer or poutine (God save us all), so I conclude that the sole purpose of the name "Canadian Corner" is to lure in customers who hope -- as do most people, in my experience -- to meet some real live Canadians. Good thing we were there, Mom and I, to lend the place a little of our star quality. I'm surprised they didn't ask to take our picture; I guess it was a busy night.

The group sang a few songs every ten minutes throughout dinner, which was cute at first but eventually inspired resentment [read: loathing] in the other diners and barely-concealed frustration in our initially very friendly head waiter. My favourite game was to try to figure out the words they were singing; their pronunciation is hit and miss, sometimes perfectly understandable and sometimes near-gibberish. (Interestingly, one of the songs that I thought was in English turned out to be in Spanish, which obviously undermines my own ear and thus my commentary on anyone's linguistic efforts.) The various courses took hours to come out and Mom was having a hard time with the endless Jesus songs. The hand-clapping songs are a good time, but the dreary, saviour-praising ones are hard to stomach when you're tired and someone's hogging all the water jugs at the other end of the giant table. And then we scored a ride home and left, praise the lord and hallelujah. That was two weeks ago and I still can't get "Oh Happy Day" out of my head, just for the record.

Back home and to the French game shows I love -- I'm not being sarcastic; I really do love them and I can't tear myself away, especially "La Cible" (target) which is like a complicated and ruthlessly eliminating version of Scattergories. My new favourite moment in any of the game shows is when someone loses at the end, which is kind of the definition of a game show, and the host says "so what happened? Was it the stress?" and makes the person justify his or her performance. The victory is often by just one or two points and really nothing for the other person to be ashamed of, but I've seen this end-of-game taunting countless times.

A recently hilarious thing on a diner-themed show: there's a segment in which the host sings English songs translated into French and the contestants have to name the singer. On this episode it was going fine, with funny renditions of "Another One Bites the Dust" and "Bad," and then he sang the unmistakeable tune to "Hey Jude" with the words "Eh, Juif..." They buzzed in, identified the Beatles and moved on to the next one, apparently in agreement that the famous lyrics are "Hey Jew." I laughed for days.


ribbit ribbit

p.s. a cute e-mail from a student, the only one to write to me in English:

Hello Kathryn,

Thanks for your answer.
Temperatures are very low (I don't no if I can use this word) in Canada.
To the holidays I stay at Lyon but I see a lot of friends. Today it's a little snowing, it's stranged !!!!

I am happy to speak with you because I can improve my English.
Good end holidays.


P.S : I've the paper to the african percussions show, it's an advertise.